When the coronavirus pandemic began last spring, Ken McKenzie thought he had prepared for the worst by renting a 40-foot-long refrigerated trailer for the bodies his funeral home couldn’t hold. But in the months since, he’s needed not just one container to handle the overflow, but two.
Before COVID-19, McKenzie typically brought in two to four bodies daily to McKenzie Mortuary in Long Beach, California, which he started in 1994. Now, he says he takes in up to 14 to 16 each day and recently had to stop accepting new cases after running out of space.
“I never thought I would ever see anything like this,” McKenzie told BuzzFeed News. “I knew there would be a surge, but not this.”
Nearly 15,000 Californians died from COVID-19 in January, the highest number of deaths recorded in the Golden State in a single month since the pandemic began. The number of deaths has been so overwhelming that air quality officials have suspended the daily cap on cremations in Los Angeles and two neighboring counties. And now, as case numbers and hospitalizations fall, many are still waiting to be laid to rest due to death certificate delays, continuing backlogs in cremations and services, and shortages in burial vaults and supplies like granite for headstones.
For McKenzie, who accepted more than 260 cases last month — about 90% of which were related to COVID-19 — the rapid rise in deaths hit “like an avalanche.”
“After that avalanche, you’re stuck,” he said. “Have you ever been on a freeway that completely closed down and you can't get off the freeway? You can’t go forward, you can’t go backwards, you can’t move. That’s how a lot of us are feeling.”
McKenzie recently allowed photographer Robert LeBlanc to document the toll of COVID-19 on his mortuary, where embalmed bodies resting under sheets and in fiberboard boxes now fill almost every room. They’ve run out of cubby space to store the clothing the deceased will be buried in. The whiteboard they use to track services is always full.
Pre-coronavirus, the mortuary held one or two funerals on a regular day. Now, McKenzie and his staff are coordinating as many as six to seven daily. Their current wait time to schedule a service at their funeral home is about three weeks. The delays are even longer for families planning to ship their loved ones out of the US for burial, due to backups in paperwork needed to transport dead bodies.
“If it's an international ship-out, they’re required to hand you the certified copy of death, and then you take that document to [the county] to have it authenticated, then you go back to the state offices and they give you a ‘noncontagious’ letter,” McKenzie explained. “Then you mail all or hand carry that to your consulate, so [under normal circumstances] you can pull that together in a week — that's taking over two months now.”
Services now are much different. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the mortuary only invites the immediate family inside the chapel and streams the service live for other relatives and friends to watch at home. Staff members check everyone’s temperature when they walk in the door and require everyone present to wear masks.
The 54-year-old mortician said it’s exhausting both physically and emotionally to be surrounded by so much death. He’s always relied on his ability to put a grieving family member at ease with a witty remark, a trait he got from his dad. His father’s death during his childhood sparked an early interest in the funeral industry.
But lately, after working 12-hour days for months, moving caskets in and out of the chapel, directing several services a day through Zoom, and comforting family members who have lost multiple relatives to COVID-19, McKenzie’s usual stream of quick wit is running dry.
“Planning a funeral is like planning a wedding in a week,” McKenzie said. “There are so many things that have to be pulled off, and if you multiply all of that by every case, my head just swims by the time I get home.”
McKenzie, who started working in the industry at age 19, recently cried in front of a customer for the first time in his career. He’d come to know them after planning multiple services for family members who had died of COVID-19 — then in a matter of weeks, they returned for yet another.
“I sat there and I cried with them, and I was a little embarrassed because I’m supposed to be the professional one, but just emotion took over,” he said.
The heartbreak of the last few months has also hit home for the mortuary’s office manager, Adriana Rodriguez, whose grandfather recently died while in hospice from health issues unrelated to the coronavirus. The family began trying to make funeral arrangements before he died and still had difficulty finding a facility with space in Santa Ana, near his home.
While McKenzie Mortuary has stopped accepting new cases until they can free up more room, they’re still able to assist families who have made arrangements ahead of time, and Rodriguez’s family found a place there for her grandfather.
“It’s been stressful in a way, but at the same time it makes me feel comfort that he's here,” she told BuzzFeed News a few days before his service. “I would have never wanted him to go to the county morgue and stay there until who knows how long.”
Rodriguez, who handles the paperwork for international ship-outs, said it’s been also difficult at times to field families' repeated calls asking for updates about when they can take their loved ones to their home country. Before the pandemic, she was able to give families a timeline.
“I can't give the families a straight answer at this point,” she said. “Everything is so backed up that it makes it really hard for me to tell them like, OK, I’m going to have this paperwork by this time and we're going to have your loved one shipped by this date. I can’t really say that to them.”
With the pandemic, many families have also been unable to visit hospitals for weeks or even months as their loved ones died from COVID-19. That’s part of the reason why Rodriguez and McKenzie believe so many people are now scheduling funeral services.
“Obviously they want to have a service. Obviously they want to have a viewing because they haven't seen them for so many weeks,” Rodriguez said. “This is their way of saying bye. This is their way of grieving, seeing them for the last time, and having closure.”